On Tuesday 28 January, the No2BedroomTax Campaign will present our petition that calls for "the Scottish Government to make approximately £50 million available to mitigate all effects of the bedroom tax in Scotland" to the Welfare Reform Committee at the Scottish Parliament.
This petition is not asking for changes in legislation but instead calls for a temporary funding measures that will protect tenants, Housing Associations and Councils in Scotland.
I appreciate that we are here to speak about the petition but I think that if we are speaking about the bedroom tax then it would make sense to explore why we are in this position in the first place.
The housing system in the whole of the UK is in crisis. And its not me that is saying that, Shelter and even the CBI, state this this crisis is due to a chronic shortage of homes. This is not new, it didn't happen overnight.
In the 1970s there was a change in mindset in the political class. Rather than state concentrating on subsidies on the supply side (via subsidising the building of affordable homes) there was a move to subsidise the demand side and this had a directly result of fewer affordable homes being built.
It was a recipe for disaster. This change in mindset plus housing policies which reduced housing stock in the social sector are the cause for our housing crisis. It's most certainly not the fault of tenants.
This brings us back to the bedroom tax.
People who are against this policy call it 'the bedroom tax' and supporters of it call it 'The Removal of the Spare room subsidy". It isn't a tax, not in the truest sense of the word and it's certainly not a "Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy". That isn't even credible. There has never been a 'spare room subsidy' in the first place.
I think it is probably best if we refer to the actual legislation and when we do so, we find is this policy already has a name. This policy is called "The Under-Occupancy Penalty". Penalty...Penalty...
This policy penalises the poor for the mistakes of others
To me, is the nub of the situation. This isn't political. It's ethical; It is about morals. What's right and what's wrong. And this is wrong. I don't want to live in a society where the poorest are forced to pay, literally pay, for politicians mistake. I think that is unfair and to be honest, we've just don't have the money to spare.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
The Government at Westminster claims that this policy is needed and will be beneficial to the housing system and wider society. They claims that it is 'fair' and that it saves money.
I hope that I have already explained why this policy isn't fair. And if you don't mind, I'll very briefly explain why it doesn't save money for the taxpayer.
Very simply, all that this policy does is devolve the costs to Westminster to a lower level. The money that Westminster argued would be saved has still to be paid, the difference is that it will be paid, not via Housing benefit, but via DHP and increased rents for the tenant while SLR face increased costs to due to Rent arrears. There are no saving. It is a mere sleight of hand.
In fact, evidence and detailed research has shown that the opposite is true. Our friends at COSLA, on the 21st November, released a press release stating that the bedroom tax "was supposed to save £50m a year on the benefits bill in Scotland. COSLA now concludes that the evidence is showing that it will cost at least £58m to £60m in Scotland this year"
So what we can do?
We can't repeal the policy, not here anywhere. So we have to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax.
Our petition puts forward the argument that the Scottish Government should fund the bedroom tax shortfall.
This temporary funding measure would ultimately protect tenant from rent arrears and eviction, and protect the revenue streams of SRLs.
We don't specify the mechanism that would be used to distribute these funds although we do accept that DHP funding is at its maximum level.
There could be a mechanism implemented whereby this temporary funding measure could be distributed as a supplement to SLR revenue. That would instantly negate the massive problems that we are having in getting people to apply for DHP.
Scottish Government figures show that there is 105,000 Scottish households are affected by the bedroom tax and yet by November this year, only 45,772 households had received a discretionary housing payment.
This leaves approximately 60,000 households who are not received any support. With 79% of households affected by the bedroom tax containing a disabled person I fear that the majority of households that are receiving no help do contain a disabled person.
To me, that shows that something is wrong. The system, including myself, has failed in ensuring that all tenants are aware of the help and support available. So having this temporary funding measure as a supplement to SLR's income streams would mean that Local Authorities and Housing Association have the responsibility of the administration and distribution of these fund, rather than tenants who are scared and confused.
Another alternative mechanism could be for a Prevention of Homeless Fund to be set up that can be used to protect individual households. What I am trying to say is that I believe that there are more mechanism available now that the DHP is at its highest level.
Even with DHP budgets being at its maximum level, DHP budgets do not cover the full bedroom tax shortfall. Due to this, we have seen inconsistencies in how different local authorities deal with DHP applications. We can have two households who have exactly the same personal circumstances living in two different local authorities; one household will have their increased rent covered by DHP yet the other household receives no help whatsoever.
I've spoke to various local authorities and the message that I am hearing is that, due to the shortfall between the DHP budget and the costs of the bedroom tax, as once Councillor once said to me, "councils need to make hard choices' when dealing with DHP applications.
And sadly, it appears that disabled people are hardest hit by these 'hard choices' made by some local authorities. DWP advice states that, in respect of a discretionary housing payment, that"...a local authority would not generally say that a person is able to use disregarded income such as disability living allowance to pay their rent..." But some councils are and this is resulting people disabled people being refused the help that they need.
This decision by local authorities to take disability benefits into account when dealing with DHP applications is currently being challenged in the courts in England. The lawyers in that case, in the West Midlands, claims that this policy breaches both the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act.
This petition stop that. It will negate and nullify the all effects of the bedroom tax in our communities. This funding measure will protect tenants from debt and eviction. It will give protection to housing association, guaranteeing that they can continue with their excellent work within their communities and it will protect local authorities and the essential and valued services they provide.
But also I think that this petition has symbolic and political values. One of the beauties of living in the digital age is being able to contact and stay in touch with tenants who are directly affected by the bedroom tax. It gives us the ability to be invited into someone's homes without leaving your living room. Since last April we have been in constant communication with tenants all over Scotland and the UK who are directly affected by the bedroom tax. In the summer of last year, we contacted as many of them as possible and ask them what they wanted us to do.
They told us, in no uncertain terms, to support ALL measures that mitigate the bedroom and that we were to push this petition as far as possible. Although this petition is in my name, it's not my petition. This petition belongs to tenants in Scotland who have asked for help and have been told NO and now we are here, on their behalf, asking the Scottish Government for help.
On this subject, there seems to be genuine confusion at Hollyrood. I have spoken to people from all sides of the political divide and, depending on which political party I speak to, they either say that the Scottish Parliament hasn't got or has the powers to implement this temporary funding measure.
I believe that Danny Alexander stated that the Scottish Government does has these powers and only a couple of weeks ago, David Mundell stated: "The spare room subsidy is not an independence issue, the Scottish Government has the power to completely deal with it now for remarkably little if it is such a priority."
If this Parliament does NOT have the powers then I genuinely apologise for wasting your time but if it DOES, then I believe that we, as a society, and this Parliament as the figurehead of our society, that we should stand up and protect the tenants from unworkable and punitive politics.
The Bedroom Tax has already been rejected by the SNP and Labour, by the LibDems at a Scottish and Federal Level, by the trade union movement and by Civic Scotland. By agreeing to this petition, you are unequivalently saying that this Parliament rejects the notion that the poorest should pay for the mistakes of others.
If you are pro-independence, then rejecting the bedroom tax will show other pro-independence campaigners what an Independent Scotland can be. If you are pro-Union, then this shows that devolution works. Everyone is a winner. Tenants are winner, our communities are winners, Housing Associations are winners, local Authorities are winners and political parties are winner. Everybody wins...except the Westminster Government. You know what? They deserve to lose.